[Untitled poem excerpt, originally written February 2001]
They laughed at your feathers,
your lyrics, your voice.
They called you ugly.
But when I look at your pictures
I see a lost little girl playing dress-up
And doing everything just because you could.
Janis, did you even know yourself?
You let them destroy you.
Killing yourself pretending to be this
character they made you.
Selling your blues, pain for profit.
They market your name, your image.
In the store today I saw you
Immortalized as a doll.
A cartoon on a t-shirt. A lunchbox.
Don't they realize you were a person?
With a beating heart and soul you were
Compelled to share with the world?
It's just that you
Never held back.
Orgasmic voice at its breaking point
Straining, screaming, too drunk to finish.
I love you Janis foryour fiery explosions, your howling cries.
The brilliant girl behind big glasses.
You thought you were hiding
behind beads, boas, booze...
Decked out in full regalia you claim your throne.
I can feel your electric tangled hair, that raspy voodoo voice
Soothing and scaring me all at once.
Where are you now?
On October 4, 1970, Janis's manager went looking for her after she uncharacteristically failed to show up for a recording session. She was found dead in her room at the Landmark Hotel in Hollywood, of what would later prove to be a heroin overdose.
The above video is a clip from D.A. Pennebaker's 1967 Monterey Pop film, showcasing Big Brother and the Holding Company's "Ball & Chain". James Gurley's guitar solo was cut from the final film so the footage could focus on Janis (you can see/hear the edit at 2:33). This was the second performance they played at the fest; the previous day's set wasn't filmed due to contractual issues, but was by all accounts just as spectacular. Although they were billed as Big Brother and the Holding Company, Janis was featured as a breakout star and began to be promoted as a solo performer, with Big Brother being relegated to a backup group. Within a short time she left the band, who struggled to find success in her absence. Janis's solo career was varied and uneven, as she experimented with several different styles of music in a span of just two years, including soul, R&B, ballads, and country-folk.
I first saw this clip when I was about 13, either on VH-1 or a PBS documentary about the history of rock & roll. I'd never encountered anyone like Janis before. I was only just getting into hard rock and hippie music after being raised on the Beach Boys, Elvis, and Buddy Holly. Suddenly here was this electrifying bad girl, scary in her raw beauty and mesmerizing in her intensity. She was acne-scarred and didn't wear a bra. She was fire and rage and sex and shouting. I loved her instantly.
That footage led me into an obsession with Janis that lasted for a strong ten years. I've since discovered other singers, artists, and performers that connect with me in similar ways, but there will never be another who grabs me by the heart and soul like she did. She was the first. She gave me something to strive for, an outlet for years of pent-up pain and frustration and longing and blues. She defined my attitude and my sense of style, and served as a warning about how living up to your own image can destroy you. (She was quoted as saying, "People, whether they know it or not, like their blues singers miserable," and "Maybe they can enjoy my music more if they think I'm destroying myself.").
Every year on October 4th I watch concert footage and interviews and think about how much Janis meant to me when I was growing up. I identified with her, growing up in a small conformist town where I was considered ugly and unpopular. But she made it out. She made it out, to be free and have adventures and fame, even if it wound up killing her in the end. That took a lot of guts, and I didn't have the guts to start living my own life until I was well into my 20's.
If I hadn't discovered her at just the right time in my life, I don't know if she would have made such an impact. Maybe someone else would have influenced me more. Or no one. But it happened to be Janis, and I'm glad it was.